How Keeping a Journal Made Me Grow

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Many times in my life I’ve been really, really stuck. Stuck in the black hole of depression, or stuck replaying an unpleasant exchange with someone inside my head. I’ve spent days –and sometimes months- going over and over painful past events and conversations with thoughts like: I should have said this, I wish I’d said that, or mentally lecturing the person who upset me.

About two years ago, I discovered something that (mostly) puts a stop to this the painful mental reprocessing: writing these conversations out in a journal. I’ve also found that journaling really helps me think about new ideas and plan major life changes. Journaling is now my main form of swadhyaya –self study. In other words, journaling has really helped me sort through my shit. I don’t know if it will work for you, but here’s what works for me.

Five years ago, whilst in the grip of suicidal depression, I found some free journal writing software and began to use it. It worked well for me – I think it was called Dear Diary. Unfortunately, my old laptop crashed and could not be revived, so I lost my very first electronic journal. Which is both a shame and a godsend – it contained the darkest thoughts of my darkest days.

Several years ago I discovered The Journal Software. The Journal is what I have been using for some time and it works for me. You can see screen shots of The Journal and learn much more about it here.

I owe my discovery of The Journal to Steve Pavlina’s blog. Here’s the quote that triggered something in me like nothing else ever had:

Journaling allows you to break free of sequential thinking and examine your thoughts from a bird’s-eye view.  When you record your sequential thoughts in a tangible medium, you can then go back and review those thoughts from a third-person perspective.  While you’re recording the thoughts, you’re in first-person mode.  But when you’re reading them, you can remain dissociated instead of associated.  This dissociative view, when combined with what you’ve already learned from the associative view, will bring you much closer to seeing the truth of your situation.

This made real sense to the writer-that-is-me. And it made really good sense to me, given my understanding of mindfulness meditation. The wisdom is this: journaling aids awareness and non-attachment.

To demonstrate, here’s a real excerpt from my journal, an example of how journaling has helped to short-circuit the obsessive mental states that lead me into anxiety and depression:

….it didn’t take me long to put my foot in my mouth. After class, I talked to XX (a new Body Balance instructor, who’s a lovely lady and totally suited to Balance teaching) on a choreography mistake – a point in the class where she’d gone completely blank and tried to cover it. She was offended by it – I hurt her! I tried to make it up and say how much I liked her teaching and how well she was going… but I could see she was defensive and that I’d offended her.

I feel so bad about this. Why do I feel bad? I’ve upset someone for a petty reason. I’ve said something that’s hurt them! Then there’s the little inside me reasons… I’m worried she’ll say something to (the gym owner) and (the gym owner) will chew me out. And I’m worried that XX won’t like me. So it’s all about my fragile ego. At least, that’s what I think it is about when I sit back and peel off the layers of fear and hurt.

The simple exercise of writing this down and separating it from me saved me days –perhaps weeks- of reprocessing in my mind. It did not mean that I was not concerned about the incident. It did not lessen the stupidity of what I’ve done – I still feel bad about being so insensitive to a new instructor’s feelings by trying to ‘help’. But instead of building up this massive internal PROBLEM in my mind that no one else could see -and thus forcing me to avoid this person and the gym- writing about it got it out of my head and gave me distance. I was able to make amends with the lady I’d hurt rather than just running away.

Keeping a journal has also aided me in problem solving. Take my career. Along with the depression caused by serial affairs with unavailable guys (yes, I have the guts to admit this), my ‘dream’ job was a farce. I spent day after day DOING NOTHING but surfing the net, numbing myself.  My life had no meaning whatsoever. Journaling helped me  explore who I really was when I had no freakin’ idea:

Job From Heaven:

I would teach, research and write – use my creativity to explore human cultures and our own culture. I would work in a university-like environment and also be allowed to spend time at home working and writing. I would have stimulating, supportive and inspiring colleagues. This would be in a small city or large country town so I could live in a rural/semi rural relaxed atmosphere. I would also be able to revive my writing career and possibly have a place where people could come and stay for yoga/meditation retreats and for writers and artists to hire out for cheap accommodation.

Job From HELL!!

This job would be where I was told what to do all the time and never given a chance to use my own ideas or creativity, where I had a cranky, conservative, authoritarian boss, where my skills and knowledge were not only disused but were not even recognised as legitimate. The work would be meaningless, unstructured, unsupported, unrecognised and unimportant. I would have co-workers who always ignored my suggestions, who gossiped about me, who disparaged me, who hate me and didn’t understand me. Oh yes, and it’s an open-plan office and I can’t really walk or ride my bike there and it’s not acceptable to do some portion of work from home.

If you read Wednesday Whiteboard this week, you’ll be able to see that the Big Idea emerged from this work that I started in October 2007. Incidentally, the excerpts above are responses to questions found in Barbara Sher’s book: I Could Do Anything, If Only I Knew What it Was.

The Big Idea emerged after a Thinking Walk and a journaling session. After all these years of incubation, it slipped into the world off the tips of my fingers to my keyboard and out into the manifest world!

Nurturing Sources

So how do I find inspiration or exercises to work through with my messy inner self in my journal?

The Journal comes with free writing prompts – templates that ask you questions or set tasks to get you writing. Personally, I find these cheesy and artificial so I don’t use them. Steve Pavlina has developed a few interesting templates for The Journal, mainly aimed at personal development and growth. These are great for working out who you are, where you want to go and solving individual problems.

Barbara Sher’s books work for me. They are packed with swadhyaya techniques – exercises for doing creative ethnography on you and your life and getting ‘write’ down into the amazing cultural construct that is YOU. You’ll find Barbara’s website here.

Another delicious place for journaling advice and inspiration it Kimberly Wilson’s website and podcast. Her podcast was called Hip Tranquil Chick. It’s now called Tranquility Du Jour. Episodes 20, 54, 117 and 142 are dedicated to journaling. Kimberly has a number of other podcasts about creativity which I also find inspiring.

I’ll end this post with another quote from Steve Pavlina. Check out this post for his instructions on journaling for personal growth:

…the more of this process we can pull into our conscious minds (by using either paper or a computer screen as an extension of our consciousness), the more clarity and focus we gain in knowing that our decisions are the right ones. And in the long run, after years of exercising the mental discipline to make more conscious decisions, we reap the harvest of far greater results.

If you’ve found this post helpful or have any experiences with journaling you’d like to share, please leave a comment or email me at rhuna9 at gmail –dot-com

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5 thoughts on “How Keeping a Journal Made Me Grow

  1. You keep changing the template! 😉

    I take your point on journaling. I wonder though, whether I’d have the discipline or not, to write that way. My poor attention span seems to preclude me from such things with any regularity… but who knows! Perhaps it might just work for me too.

    • Hey, Svasti. Yes I’m leaving this template as is now. I’ve finally found one that works for me – even though it took about a week.

      Sometimes I just write a few lines in the journal – and some days I’m out bush, so I won’t write at all. The thing is to use it as a tool when it’s needed (well, at least that’s how it works for me).

  2. “I should have said this, I wish I’d said that”

    Oh god, I remember what that’s like. I think I spent every waking minute of high school with that tape running through my head.

  3. Pingback: The Anti-Depression Recipe That Saved My Life « AnthroYogini

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